Art History in “Angels in America”

I checked out a DVD of the HBO adaptation of the Tony Kushner play, and when the root menu loaded, lo and behold, a reference to The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo.  Specifically, the fingers of man and God almost touching.

Honestly, I found that reference made no sense.  Because while angels interact with humans, the play explains that God left them.  The painting is about God creating humans, a decision that angels (in the play) came to resent.

After watching the miniseries, I did some research on IMDB.  There, I discovered some tidbits behind the other artworks used in the film.  References to art history executed with a better understanding on how they relate to the plot of Angels in America.

Background behind the Bethesda Fountain

“The Central Park fountain that is prominently featured in Kushner’s play and its film adaptation is officially titled “The Angel of the Waters” and familiarly known as “The Bethesda Fountain.” It was installed in 1873 and sculpted by artist Emma Stebbins (1815-1882), who was the first woman to be commissioned to create a sculpture for the City of New York. Stebbins was also the sister of the president of the Central Park Board of Commissioners, and the longtime romantic partner of world-famous actress Charlotte Saunders Cushman. In 2011, Lapham’s Quarterly Magazine reported that while sculpting the statue, Stebbins used Cushman as the model for the angel’s body.”

When I read that, I found myself delighted at the LGBT history buried in the story’s layers.  Learning something new added to that sense of happiness.  However, I was unable to find the Lapham’s Quarterly source, and there is some skepticism behind the claim that Cushman acted as a model for the angel.

IMDB had another factoid that helped name a painting seen in Part One: Millennium Approaches.  The name of the painting that would act as a foreshadowing device to Prior Walter’s second confrontation with the Angel of America in Part Two: Perestroika.

“The painting displayed during Joe and Harper’s living room talk about his childhood dreams is entitled “Jacob Wrestling with the Angel” and was painted in 1865 by Alexander-Louis Leloir.”

You can see the painting for yourself here.  I do like that the filmmakers faithfully reenact Leloir’s Jacob grabbing the angel by the waist by having Prior Walter doing the same thing the Angel.

Those references aside, I want to point out how unreal Emma Thompson looked as the Angel.  Seriously, check out the scenes with her and Meryl Streep.  Thompson makes these facial expressions that are similar to depictions of angels found in art history.

Maybe it’s the eyebrows.

Or the make up job that gives Thompson this rather androgynous appearance.

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